While being interviewed by police more than a decade ago, Duane Frey admitted to killing Hopethan "Flex" Johnson, his crack-cocaine dealer, on May 26, 2002, after an eight-day crack binge, saying the man ruined his life.
"I shot him until I knew he was dead," Frey told police, according to court documents and trial testimony.
But Frey refused to tell police where he dumped his victim's body other than to make the cryptic statement, "it's probably crab bait right now."
Despite the fact that Johnson's body was still missing at the time of Frey's 2003 trial, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors used Frey's confession as well as incriminating physical evidence and statements from his friends and acquaintances to make their case.
Retrial sought: Now Frey is asking a York County judge to overturn his conviction and grant him a new trial. Defense attorney Jeff Conrad is arguing Frey deserves a new trial because there was exculpatory evidence discovered after trial. Exculpatory evidence is evidence that would tend to exonerate a defendant.
At a hearing Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Gregory M. Snyder appeared unconvinced after listening to the issues Conrad said he intends to present at Frey's second post-conviction appeal hearing, scheduled for July 31.
The discussion included the defense questioning whether Johnson was actually killed by a convicted drug dealer who was subsequently charged with killing Frey's friend, Stacey Farmer — a homicide that remains unsolved.
"How is that exculpatory?" Judge Snyder asked, noting an alternate theory of a crime isn't the same as exculpatory evidence.
Other claims: Also at the hearing, Conrad questioned whether one of the lead detectives in the Johnson homicide gave an informant money to buy drugs. Chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker told the judge Conrad's allegation was "made in bad faith" and that he was "proposing a hypothetical" based on no evidence.
Conrad also said the fact that Farmer's death was not officially ruled a homicide until years later could be construed as after-discovered evidence.
"I really, really find that a stretch," Snyder told him.
Conrad also said he is hoping to show the court "a pattern that the commonwealth failed to turn over discoverable evidence."
But the judge said even if the allegation is true, it cannot be considered exculpatory in and of itself.
Frey's confession: After the hearing, Conrad said if he can convince Snyder to grant Frey a new trial, part of the defense strategy will be to attack Frey's confession.
Conrad said police were untruthful about what Frey said.
"We don't concede to the confession," he said.
Barker said he is confident the conviction will stand. But even if a retrial was ordered, the prosecution's case is solid, he said.
"With the evidence we have now, including finding the remains ... including inculpatory statements ... the case is so much stronger now than at the first trial," Barker said.
In 2010, York Area Regional Police announced the 29-year-old Johnson's remains had been found March 25, 2008, by two land surveyors on a mountainside about 1.5 miles from the Susquehanna River in Chanceford Township, not far from the Holtwood Dam. It took until May 6, 2010, for scientists using DNA profiles to determine the skeletal remains were that of Johnson.
Farmer case: Barker said the investigation into Farmer's homicide remains active and evidence testing is ongoing. Farmer, 33, was shot in the head at close range and was found in front of his home at 880 Snyder Corner Road in Windsor Township on June 27, 2002.
At the time of his slaying he was free on bail, accused of helping Frey cover up Johnson's homicide, which also happened on Farmer's property.
Farmer was killed two days after The York Dispatch published an article quoting Farmer's family members as saying Farmer planned to go to police and come clean.
Police arrested a man for Farmer's homicide in 2010, but prosecutors withdrew the murder charges in February, saying they had insufficient evidence to take the case to trial.